Stubble burning begins: Hold your breath Delhiites, that deadly smog is coming
Honking its way down the narrow Taraouri Road, in Haryana’s Karnal district, the 16-wheeler truck vanished into a dense cloud of smoke billowing from a field set on fire by its owner to get rid of the paddy stubble left behind after the crop was harvested.
Agricultural stubble — millions of tonnes — is burnt by farmers in northern India every October, triggering heavy pollution in Delhi-NCR before the onset of winter.
The annual episode has already begun this year, leaving Delhi residents concerned. The memory of the 2016 smog, triggered primarily by burning of stubble and crackers, is still fresh in their minds.
Though the National Green Tribunal banned crop burning in 2015, implementing the order had been difficult. Farmers set crop residue afire mainly because of cost concerns and the short gap between summer and winter crops. Lack of incentives and equipment to cut the stubble are other issues.
Hindustan Times travelled to Punjab and Haryana for a ground report. In a two-part series, HT also tries to come up with some feasible solutions.
Travelling along the National Highway from Delhi to Haryana and then to Punjab, it would be difficult for one to assess the quantum of the problem. But as one travels into the villages, off the NH, the drama unfolds.
Some farmers at Kacchhwa, a remote village in Karnal, were seen harvesting paddy. Others had set their farmlands on fire, leaving behind black ash. Smoke was seen in some farmlands at a distance. Fires were still raging.
Stubble burning has already started. NASA images revealed that red dots — denoting incidents of fire — have started appearing almost everywhere in Haryana and Punjab.
In Haryana, Fatehbad, Kaithal, Karnal, Sirsa, Jind reported the maximum number of incidents. In Punjab, reports poured in from Amritsar, Tarn Taran and Patiala.
“It is spreading like wildfire. Every farmer waits for his neighbour to light the fire,” said a farmer who refused to be named.
Most studies speak of biomass burning, which includes crop residue fires. But hardly any talks about stubble burning and its effect in isolation.
A study — Socioeconomic and Environmental Implications of Agricultural Residue Burning published by Springer in 2015 — sheds some light. Stubble burning, it says, results in emission of harmful gases such as carbon monoxide, N2O, NO2, SO2, CH4 along with particulate matter and hydrocarbons.
Each tonne of crop residue on burning releases around 3kg of particulate matter, 60 kg of CO, 1,460 kg of CO2, 199kg of ash and 2kg of SO2.
“The damage doesn’t end here. Stubble burning also takes a heavy toll on the soil, resulting in loss of nutrients,” said Polash Mukerjee, senior research associate (air pollution), Centre for Science and Environment.
The same study says each hectare of paddy straw contains around 39 kg of nitrogen, six kg of phosphorus, 140 kg of potassium and around 11 kg of sulphur. It is estimated a significant amount of this nutrient source is lost on burning.
“Burning also takes a toll on micro-organisms and other small creatures such as earthworms that help enrich the soil,” said CR Babu, ecologist.
Reason for concern
Delhi had no reason to worry about it had it not been for the changing wind pattern at time of the year.
“With the retreat of monsoon, the northwesterly winds start blowing in. This paves the way for a major chunk of the pollutants to reach Delhi and other cities located in the path of the winds,” said D Saha, head of the air quality laboratory, Central Pollution Control Board.
In summer, the wind blows in the opposite direction because of which stubble burning has little effect in Delhi.
Studies show stubble burning contributes anywhere between 12% and 60% to Delhi’s pollution load during this time of the year, depending on wind direction and speed.
Firecrackers during Diwali are a major source of pollution before winter but stubble burning is a larger headache as it lingers for days, starting the first week of October.
Delhi’s air quality has already started deteriorating and PM10 and PM2.5 levels are gradually shooting up.
“These are very fine particles and can penetrate deep into our lungs, triggering a range of ailments. The elderly, children and those suffering from chronic respiratory and cardiac problems are particularly at risk,” said Dr A Mohan, professor, department of pulmonary medicine and sleep disorder, AIIMS.
Government vs villagers
The main problem seems to be the demand-supply chain. The government says it has extended subsidy to farmers to purchase machinery to dispose of cut stubble. Farmers say they are yet to receive assistance.
Punjab’s farmers demand Rs 300 per quintal for not burning paddy stubble, besides subsidy on machines such as happy seeders and shredders.
They say disposing of the straw in an environment friendly manner would mean an additional expenditure of Rs 5,000-6,000 per acre.
“What will we do with this stubble? We have no option but to burn them. Heard about a government aid of Rs 100 per quintal but have never got a penny,” said a villager at Fatehgarh Channa, Punjab. He refused to identify himself fearing action by authorities
Farmers in Haryana’s Karnal and Kurukshetra had similar complaints – no aid from the government, no machines and no alternatives to stubble burning.
“We are trying to provide assistance to farmers. But things can’t be done overnight. We need some aid from the Centre too,” said a senior official of the Haryana agriculture department.
The National Green Tribunal last week had rapped the Punjab government for not providing incentive and infrastructure assistance to farmers to stop them from burning stubble residue.
The quantum of the problem can be estimated from the fact that an estimated 35 million tonnes are burnt in Punjab and Haryana alone to make room for the winter wheat crop.
Seeking government aid to handle farm residue, farmer union representatives collectively set fire to a 25-acre field at Shajju Bhatt village in Nabha to send across a message of defiance on Tuesday.
Hindustan Times visited the village and met 67-year-old Gurmeet Singh, secretary of the Kul Hind Kisan Sabha.
“We understand pollution and that this burning is causing harm even in Delhi. But we have no other way. If the government helps us out and give farmers Rs 5,000 per acre, we won’t burn. This is an additional burden and relief is needed,” Singh said.
Banned by NGT in 2015
The NGT had banned crop burning in 2015 and directed state governments to take coercive and punitive action against violators of its burning order. It had asked them to withdraw assistance provided to such farmers.
The tribunal had imposed penalties too. Small landowners with less than two acres of land will have to pay Rs 2,500; medium landowners holding over two acres and less than five acres will have to pay Rs 5,000; and those owning over five acres to pay Rs 15,000 per incident of stubble burning as environment compensation, the NGT had ordered.
It had asked the state governments to provide machinery free of cost to farmers having less than two acres of land, Rs 5,000 to farmers having medium landowners and Rs15,000 for large land holding farmers.
Thereafter, the state governments have been repeatedly pulled up by courts and court-appointed panels. Crop burning, however, continues unabated.